Archaeological findings at Skopje's Kale fortress show that unidentified people lived here in prehistoric times, between the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Ages. Scientists think that they date back to earlier than 4,000 B.C. Actual evidence and records of the Skopje region date from the 4th century B.C. According to some scholars, the Paions initially settled the town. In the 3th century BC, Skopje with surrounding area was invaded by the Dardans. It is believed that these people lived off primitive land cultivation and cattle breeding. Today, science has a relatively vague idea about the Dardanian art. However, the expansion of ancient Macedonia during the time of Philip II of Macedonia and Alexander III of Macedonia throughout the then known world certainly had positive influence on Dardania, which is confirmed by the tomb plate found on the Skopje fortress.
The Roman occupation of Macedonia, after the Macedonian-Roman wars, meant also the occupation of Scupi. The Roman historian Titus Livius made the first historical reference to Scupi. Roman administrators reorganized public life and began elevating culture and the arts to hitherto unknown heights. Because of its geographical position at important crossroads, Scupi assumed a special role in the Roman Empire. Being a part of the Roman prefecture Illyricum, Scupi was latinized, especially through the colonization of Roman veterans from the VII legion. This colonization had impacted the population structure of the city, as witnessed by the Latin inscriptions on all tombstones dating from the 2th, 3th and 4th century. While the Roman colonists acquired citizen's rights, the indigenous inhabitants lost all political rights and were given a status equal to that of foreigners. Once latinized, the town of Scupi acquired municipal rights. During the reign of Emperor Hadrian, Scupi acquired the right to Roman law and as such, it entered chronicles and official documents. During the time of Tiberius, there was the first partition of the Balkan provinces, which were eventually defined by the emperors Diocletian and Constantine I. From the Moesia Superior, a new province was extracted, Dardania, with Scupi as the administrative center. In the well-known map of Roman routes, Tabula Peutengiriana, Scupi is shown in a vignette, representing a provincial capital. Throughout the decades and centuries of Roman rule, Scupi developed into a large town, as witnessed by interesting archaeological finds, especially near the village of Bardovci. Apart from the Roman theatre, many luxurious items have been found in the necropolis: expensive Syrian glasswork, bronze items etc.
Christianization spread to Scupi very early - it had an organized church since the time of Constantine I. After the legalization of Christianity with the Edict of Milan (313), Scupi became an episcopal see. The Bishop of Scupi, Dacus, had attended the First Ecumenical Council of Nicea (325). Bishop Paregorius attended the Council of Serdicca (343). Later on, in 451, Bishop Ursinus is mentioned in the emperor's correspondence, while in 491, another Bishop of Scupi, Johannes, is mentioned in the papal correspondence. These facts, along with some of the archaeological findings, indicate that Christianity had influence on society and art.
Over the course of the 4th, 5th and 6th century, under the rule of the Eastern Roman Empire, Scupi developed as a typical late-Roman town with administrative palaces, a Roman theatre, public baths (thermae), fortifications, paved squares and streets, water management system, Christian churches etc. The relatively peaceful period was interrupted by incursions of the Avaric tribes, the Goths and, the Huns. Positioned at a major crossroad, Scupi increasingly became the target of the attacks of barbaric tribes, coinciding with the great migration of peoples that changed the map of Europe. Just at the time when Scupi was an architecturally developed urban settlement, resisting the barbaric attacks, a violent earthquake struck in 518, levelling Scupi to the ground and devastating almost all of Macedonia. The sudden cataclysm put an end to civilized life in Scupi and buried its artistic achievements for centuries. Most of the population, however, escaped certain death, owing to an (un) fortunate circumstance: having had anticipated an Avaric attack, the town's population fled to the neighbouring hills of Skopska Crna Gora the previous night. The catastrophic event was recorded in the "Chronicle" of Marcellinus Comes - he wrote that an earthquake struck Dardania, destroying "24 castels", among which the episcopal see, Scupi. It is believed that the population moved to the area around the Upper Town (the "Kale"), the mouth of river Serava, the village of Taor and the Vodno Mountain. It is precisely in the fortification Taoresium (today the village of Taor, in the immediate vicinity of Skopje) that the Byzantine Emperor Justinianus I (483-565) was born. Justinianus I favoured and supported the growth of his birthplace. Numerous splendid buildings were erected in his honour: residences, palaces, squares, waterfalls etc. This supports the hypothesis that the town called Justiniana Prima, founded in 535 by Justinianus I, was located in the area of present-day Skopje. Its bishop, Antis, became the Archbishop of all the dioceses of East Illyricum. The archbishops of this town that is still veiled by mystery inherited the throne from the bishops of Scupi. That is why researchers link Justinian Prima to Skopje. In that period (535-534) the autocephalous archbishopric of Justiniana Prima was established. However, the death of emperor Justinianus I was soon followed by the unstoppable migration of the Slavic tribes to the Balkan Peninsula, who settled there forever. The town of Scupi is believed to have been settled by a tribe called the Berziti (Brsjaks), who gave the contemporary name to this town - Skopje.
No written sources account for the destiny of Skopje in the following three centuries. Towards the end of the 10th century, Tsar Samuil (974-1014) created the medieval Macedonian state. In that period, Scupi acquired an important role in the centralized state and the merchants from Skopje established trade contacts with the neighbouring town and the towns along the Adriatic coast. In the decisive battle in the town (1004) between the Byzantine and Tsar Samuil's armies, the commander of Skopje, Roman, committed treason and handed over the town to Byzantine Emperor Basil II. The tragic end of Tsar Samuil, after the Battle of Belasica (1014) meant new times of adversity for Skopje. The town was exposed to destruction, retribution, plunder. This resulted in new, however short-lived, uprisings against the central Byzantine administration: Tsar Samuil's grandson, Peter Deljan, led an uprising whose center was Skopje (1040-1041). The uprising led by Deljan was brutally put down by the Byzantines and Skopje fell once again under Byzantine rule. Another uprising, under Georgij Vojtech, followed in 1072-1073 and again the center of it was Skopje. This highly unstable situation, with popular uprisings, rebellions, attacks and conquests continued and in 1081, the Normans attacked and plundered Skopje, and continued to rule until 1088. In 1093, the Serbian župan (district head) Vukan interrupted the Norman domination. Four years later, the Normans led by Duke Tarenski, reclaimed the territory of Polog, including Skopje.
Skopje continued to pass from one reigh to another throughout the succeeding centuries. Having conquered the Byzantine empire, the armies of the Nemanja dynasty occupied the territories of Macedonia all the way to Salonika. Under the military, administrative and spiritual domination of this Serbian dynasty, Skopje developed on the left bank of Vardar, today the areas of Kale - Old Bazaar - Cair - Gazi Baba. In the ensuing century, until 1392, in this area were built important churches and monasteries, administrative and commercial buildings, all of which contributed towards a renewed significance of the medieval town as a political, economic, spiritual and cultural center in the Balkan.
The ruler of the medieval Serbian state, Tsar Dusan was crowned in Skopje in 1346. The enactment of the Dušan's Code in 1349, which regulated a number of aspects of the public and private life, made Skopje a political, cultural and commercial center of key importance. The greatest merchants of that time, from Venezia and Dubrovnik, had their own warehouses in Skopje. Long caravans stopped en route to Skopje and supplied the town with products from all parts of Europe, the Middle and the Far East, Africa or elsewhere.
However, in the East there raised the new, Ottoman empire, which expanded towards Europe. At the same time, some of the old medieval Christian states collapsed. On 19 January 1392, Skopje fell under the Turks. The town was given a new name - Iskib. A monk at the Saint Theodor Monastery on Mt. Vodno briefly recorded the date of the town's capture by the Turks: "In the 69th year (1392) the Turks took Skopje on the 6th day of the month (January 19, 1392 according to the new calendar).
The establishment of the Ottoman Turkish rule in Skopje brought deep changes in its economic and political life. As a crossroads of important Balkan routes connecting Europe and Asia, Skopje became increasingly important to the Turks as a base for their further conquests. Time again, it grew strong politically and economically. Already in 1469, it had a covered market (bezisten) with many shops and a caravanserai where travellers and merchants lodged - Arabs, Jews, Greeks, Ragusans, Venetians, and others. From the travel writers Hadži-Kalfa and Evli Čelebi, we learn that in Skopje in the 17th century many trades were practiced, producing agricultural implements, gear for livestock and the army and consumer goods for the local population. As in other towns of Macedonia, there was a constant influx of Moslems, Jews and Christians into Skopje, this being the chief cause of the increase in population. Calculating the number of inhabitants of Skopje in the seventh decade of the 17th century, Evli Čelebi stated that the town then had 10.160 houses.
The successful development of Skopje was suddenly interrupted in 1689 by the entry of the Austrian army into Macedonia. During the Austrian-Turkish war (1683-1699), Austrian troops under the command of General Piccolomini penetrated in an unstoppable advance far into the interior of European Turkey and, after taking the fortress of Kačanik, descended into the Skopje plain. On October 25, 1689, they took Skopje without much struggle, for the Turkish army and the inhabitants had left the town. By order of General Piccolomini, Skopje was set on fire, and the conflagration lasted two days (Oct. 26 and 27); great many houses and shops were destroyed, but the worst damage was in the Jewish quarter of the town, where almost all the dwelling-houses, two synagogues and the Jewish school were destroyed.
The Austro-Turkish war meant not only fires, plunder and destruction for Skopje, but disclosed the weaknesses of the Ottoman empire and at the same time increased the misery of the Christian population. The advance of the Austrian army into Macedonia stirred high hopes among the Macedonian population that the days of Turkish domination were numbered. This, among the other reasons sparked the Karpoš uprising in 1689. With the retreat of the Austrian armies, the rebels had to defend the freed territories themselves. In fierce clashes with the far outnumbering and well-armed Turkish forces, the rebels were crushed and Karpoš himself was taken prisoner. To terrify the population, the Stone Bridge impaled Karpoš over the Vardar in Skopje and his body thrown into the river. In an attempt to save their own lives, many of the inhabitants were forced to abandon their homes and land forever and take refuge on the other side of the rivers Sava and Danube, in the northern parts of the Balkans.
The brutal suppression of Karpos' uprising, the reprisals and atrocities, did not calm the population of Macedonia or wipe out the outlaw-bands. Social, political and economic life in Skopje and its district grew even worse towards the end of the 18th century, coinciding with the general crisis and anarchy in the Ottoman Empire. A band of Turkish outlaws, composed of deserters, Janissaries and even Christians, roamed the slopes of the Šar Planina, the Skopska Crna Gora, and around Debar and other places, attacking and plundering villages and towns. The population of Skopje and the nearby villages also suffered at this time from frequent epidemics of plague and cholera, which inflicted a large numbers of the inhabitants and led to mass immigration to the towns and Macedonian peasants coming into them. The French travel writer Ami Boue reported that in 1836-38, Skopje had at least 10,000 inhabitants, and numerically ranked next after Salonika, Bitola and Seres. By 1852, Skopje had a population of 20,000. The influx of peasants from the surrounding area made a marked change in the ethnic composition of the population. The town had grown into an important commercial and industrial centre, as is shown by the fact that in mid-19th century some sixty different crafts were practiced there.
The striving for national freedom emerged relatively early on in Skopje and took various forms. The prominent members of the economically stronger commercial and industrial class (the merchant Hadži Trajko, among others), in Skopje and in other Macedonian towns, became leaders of the movement for breaking free of the foreign (in the first place the Greek) influence in the church and to that end they built churches and opened schools. With the financial support and efforts of these local merchants and craftsmen, the Church of Holy Ascension and the Church of the Holy Mother of God were built and a municipal school opened in 1835-36. The educational-enlightening activities of the well-known writer and leader the Macedonian national revival, Jordan Hadži Konstantinov-Džinot, in Skopje found widespread support in the resistance against the Hellenization and for the use of the spoken Macedonian language in liturgical services, schools and in everyday use.
In 1850, Jordan H. K. Džinot headed a Macedonian school attended by 179 students. He opened the first Macedonian library, which was instrumental in the awakening of national identity among the people. The resistance against the Greek clergy and the struggle for their removal from leading and authoritive role in the churches and schools led Skopje to renouncing the Constantinople Patriarchate. The propaganda of the Bulgarian exarchate, formed in 1870, grafted on the Macedonian revival efforts. However, part of the Macedonian clergy never renounced the idea of forming the Macedonian Orthodox church within the empire, by restoring the Ohrid Archbishopric (abolished by the Turks). This idea was led by Skopje exarch Metropolitan Teodosij Gologanov. His activity was stopped in the very beginning; in 1891, he was removed from his function in Skopje and in 1892, he was expelled from the town.
Beginning with the 60s of 19th century, the building of better roads and the construction of railways improved Skopje’s communications. In 1873 the Salonika - Skopje railway was opened and the following year it was extended to Kosovska Mitrovica, making Skopje an important junction.
As a part of the Ottoman Empire, Macedonia could not stay away from the uprisings and wars waged during the so-called Great Eastern Crisis (1875-1881). Defeated on the military and diplomatic fields, the Ottoman Empire was forced to accept the provisions of the Congress of Berlin (1878) thereby losing a large part of the occupied European territories. At that time Serbia, Bulgaria, Monte Negro and Romania gained national independence, while the Austro-Hungarian forces occupied Bosnia and Herzegovina. Macedonia was swept by a wave of uprisings and struggle for liberation (the Razlovec Uprising 1876; the Kumanovo-Kriva Palanka and Pijanec Uprisings, 1878 and the great Macedonian Uprising of Kresna, 1878). Unfortunately, the Berlin Congress left Macedonia within the borders of the Ottoman Empire. These great changes on the map of South-eastern Europe following the great Eastern Crisis led to two crucial changes for Macedonia and consequently, for Skopje.
The liberation of the Bulgarian territory and the southern parts of Serbia caused a mass migration of the entire moslem population (Turks, Albanian, Pomaks, Cerkez, Tatars etc) from these territories, together with the retreating Turkish army. A large portion of these refugees (also known as mudžahirs) arrived and settled in Macedonia, thus significantly increasing the moslem population in certain parts of it. Skopje was one of their first stops in this migration. Once the situation calmed, the Ottoman Empire went at great length to permanently settle the exiled population. In Skopje, they developed a whole district for this purpose – Madžir Maalo. Such migrations continued for several years, during which arrived the Bošnjaks from Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The great Eastern Crisis brought about another political change in Macedonia - from a central Turkish province, it became a peripheral one, which directly influenced the development of an organized Macedonian national liberation struggle. The core of this movement would be the Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (since 1896 TMORO, since 1905 VMORO) with a primary goal – Macedonia as a separate political entity in the Balkan. To that end, the organization gathered the national forces and organized the entire territory of Macedonia into an illegal network. Concurrently with the struggle against the Ottoman rule, MRO set forth a goal to fight against the foreign propaganda in the Macedonian schools and churches, installed by the neighbouring Balkan countries and related to their plans for territorial expansion in Macedonia. Skopje became the center of one the five Macedonian revolutionary districts – the Skopje Revolutionary District, which included the areas around Skopje, Kumanovo, Kriva Palanka, Kratovo, Kočani, Veles and Štip. Within the territory of this district, the educational and illegal revolutionary activities revolved around Gjorče Petrov and Petar Pop Arsov in Skopje, while in Štip began the revolutionary activity of the great ideologist of the Macedonian national liberation and revolutionary struggle, Goce Delčev. The fierce outcome of the Ilinden uprising in 1903 impeded this whole revolutionary generation to achieve the idea of forming a Macedonian national state.
In the last decades of the Turkish domination, Skopje became the administrative center of Skopje (Kosovo) Vilayet. In 1900-1908, Afuz Pasha built several buildings in Skopje: "Islahana" (a school for poor children), "Idadija-Mekteba" (school-lyceum) and completed the regulation of the riverbeds of Vardar and Serava. As a valiya (commander) of Skopje, he ordered the construction of the City Park. In 1906, Shefket Pasha built the first theatre. Also new building for the Skopje metropolis was constructed.
The revolution of the Young Turks (1908) brought new changes in society, i.e. the formation and legal operation of political parties within the Empire. This coincided with the emergence of the socialist movement in Macedonia. At the forefront of that, movement was the working class. Socialist groups were formed in Skopje and they merged into the Socialist Workers' Federation. According to some claims, socialist groups started in Skopje in 1900.
On January 7, 1909, the Skopje Social Democratic Organization was formed as a local branch of the Ottoman Social Democratic Party. It organized the first celebration of May Day in the Ottoman Empire and that same year (1909), the first bookstore selling socialist literature was opened in Skopje. A year later (1910), the organization started putting out its own newspaper, Socialist Dawn.
The Balkan wars (1912-1913) marked the end of the Ottoman Turkish rule for Macedonia. Nevertheless, here arrived the epoch of disintegration of the Macedonian ethno-geographic entity, as a result of the territorial partition of Macedonia among the three Balkan states - Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece. On 24-25 October 1912, the Turkish army left Skopje and the following day, on 26 October, the Serbian forces occupied the town. The Treaty of Bucharest (1913) sanctioned this partition. The partition of Macedonia was followed by mass, forceful migration and ethnic cleansing of entire Macedonian villages and towns, in the territories that were annexed to Greece.
On April 8, 1941, Skopje again changed hands: the German occupying troops entered the town, which they had heavily bombed only two days earlier. However, the Nazis did not stay long. They handed over Skopje and most of Macedonia to fascist Bulgaria. Now, Skopje was under Bulgarian-fascist occupation. It became the headquarters for the Command of the Bulgarian Occupying Army, the District Police, and the Civil Commissariat for the whole of Macedonia. The Bulgarian occupation cut off road traffic and the town lost its importance as a crossroads in the Balkans. Its economy stagnated.
However, the Macedonian people did not accept the Bulgarian fascist occupation, and they rose up in resistance. The national liberation movement spread and Skopje became a major center of underground activity. It was from here that the political leadership of Macedonia (the Communist Party of Macedonia), oversaw the resistance movement throughout Macedonia itself. In August 1941, the first partisan detachment in Macedonia was formed in Skopje. Even before that, the young people of Skopje had carried out several successful acts of sabotage at Skopje's airport, at the Raduša chrome mines and the locomotive repair shop, and had assassinated a number of traitors and collaborators of the occupiers. Skopje grew into a major stronghold of resistance and the fascist occupiers began taking their revenge. A number of prominent revolutionaries, such as national heroes Strašo Pindžur, Orce Nikolov, Mirče Acev and Cvetan Dimov were killed in Skopje's jails; Kuzman Josifovski Pitu was killed on his way to a clandestine meeting; leaders of the National Liberation Movement in Macedonia and national heroes were shot dead.
After days of street fighting against German forces, units of the National Liberation Army of Macedonia finally liberated Skopje on November 13, 1944.
Therefore, the first pages were written in Skopje's modern-day history. For the first time in centuries, it was free, the capital of the Republic of Macedonia. This new era in the development of Macedonia and Skopje, it saw the formation and organization of a new modern state there where for centuries a nation had gone unrecognized.